clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

HOUSE FIT FOR KING PUTS UP PRESIDENT

The Clintons came up with a gem for their temporary new home: 115 rooms, easy commute, plenty of history and apparently no more termites munching on the studs.

Blair House, diagonally across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, is putting up a U.S. president for the first time since Harry Truman lived there for more than three years - and loved it despite assassins and cellar rats.President Clinton and his family will be staying at the house until White House heating and ventilation systems are fixed, probably next week. Clinton walked to work Thursday on his first full day back from vacation.

Blair House is the official guest house for visiting leaders, a building that has gone through many cycles of decay and repair, crisis and celebration, during its 170-year history.

Today the four-story complex has 15 guest bedrooms, bright colors such as salmon, yellow and blue, overstuffed chairs, Oriental silks, three dining rooms, a homey library and a mix of federal, Georgian and other styles.

"Blair House is typically American," a writer said in the 1940s, "because it is not really typical of anything."

Blair House proper was built as a two-story townhouse, grew to four stories and joined three other buildings to become a spacious complex that looks deceptively compact from the outside.

Before a $13 million overhaul that closed the building between 1982 and 1988, explosive gas was found leaking into the boiler room, a chandelier fell on an unoccupied VIP bed, rugs were threadbare and termites were rampant.

Now it exhibits "becoming modesty, not at all ostentatious," said Carter Cunningham, executive director of the Blair House restoration fund.

"Termites - I don't think that's a problem."

Harry and Bess Truman were happy there during major White House renovations, biographer David McCullough says in his book, "Truman."

The house creaked and groaned, he wrote, and rats scurried in the cellar.

"But . . . the president and the first lady had more time alone together, sitting in the small back garden reading, having lunch or resting. Indeed, it was the first time in their married life that they had ever had a house to them-selves."

On Nov. 1, 1950, Truman napped upstairs while two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to shoot their way in, killing guard Leslie Coffelt before being stopped.

Truman then gave up walking to work and took a bulletproof car.

"It's just been a window on American history since its inception," Cunningham said.

As much of that history, it seemed, could be glimpsed by looking in the windows of Blair House.

Newspaper publisher Francis Preston Blair, who bought the house in 1836, became a right-hand man to President Jackson in the so-called Kitchen Cabinet.

It was in his home that Robert E. Lee was offered command of the Union Army before the Civil War, only to decide he must fight for Virginia and the Confederacy.

It was there leaders gathered for hurried meetings during World War II, including the Yugoslav boy King Peter, said to have read comic books during his stay.

Blair descendants frequently offered the house as a place for leaders to stay and meet. The government finally bought the property in 1942 for that purpose.

Guests have included Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, Charles de Gaulle of France, Nikita Khrushchev of the former Soviet Union and U.S. presidents-elect.

Cunningham said the Clintons might be easier to look after than some foreign guests because cultural differences are not a factor.

Usually, the staff researches diets, habits and sometimes exotic preparations - although Jordan's King Hussein, for one, likes hamburgers.